The recession-squeezed travel industry continues to cut deals to entice cash-strapped consumers. To help you find the best bargains, we surfed the torrent of travel sites and chose the best for airfares, lodging, car rentals and other key areas.
Kayak.com fetches fares from hundreds of online sources. Simply click on the best deal and Kayak will send you to the site where you can buy the ticket. The more flexible you are, the better your chances of finding a great deal: Search for dates up to three days before and after your ideal travel dates, or use the Buzz tool to search for trips that leave within a calendar month, in the six upcoming weekends, or just anytime. And if you don’t have a specific destination in mind, Buzz lets you search a region, such as the Caribbean, Europe or Asia.
Bing Travel is giving Kayak a run for the online-travel-market money: On a few test (and personal) searches, Bing results brought in cheaper flights than Kayak, but the latter still wins the majority of the time. The main attraction of the Microsoft-backed site continues to be its “price predictor,” which forecasts whether fares on major domestic routes will go up or down. Enter your itinerary and the site will return a list of airfares with a recommendation to either buy now or wait for a fare drop. Other than that, it functions much like Kayak, but searches fewer sources and doesn’t always transfer you straight to the purchasing page. Instead, it sometimes sends you to the corresponding airline or online travel agency homepage after you click on a deal, where you’ll have to re-enter your search criteria.
Airfare Watchdog works best for travelers ready to take off at the drop of a deal. The site has about 20 employees lurking on airline Web sites in anticipation of fare sales. They sign up for rewards programs to snag promotional codes and discount offers that can be passed on to AirfareWatchdog users. Bonus: The site includes fares from Southwest, JetBlue and other small airlines that may not appear on bigger search sites like Kayak and Bing.
Search for accommodations at more than 85,000 properties using Hotels.com. We’ve found particularly good bargains among the site’s last-minute deals, which are updated every Thursday. But even advance-planning types can score low rates with the site’s “red hot deals” and “deals of the week.” The “welcomerewards” program offers frequent travelers a free night worth up to $400 (including taxes and fees) after they stay ten nights at any combination of Hotels.com properties with rates of at least $40 per night. Also, the site offers more than a million property reviews from real travelers.
The Priceline.com Negotiator offers the best bargains for luxury hotel lodging. You select a minimum star class, duration of stay and preferred neighborhood, then name your price. Bids less than $100 a night on luxury lodgings often win, particularly for last-minute bookings. But here’s the gamble: Priceline doesn't tell you the exact hotel you're booking until after you pay, so you can’t be sure exactly where you’ll end up. Blind booking like this is an even riskier proposition when you’re visiting an unfamiliar area, especially overseas.
With LateRooms.com, you can find great last-minute bargains at international hotels. But if you’d rather book by phone – a smart move to guarantee an eleventh-hour reservation – on the booking page, the site will give you the hotel’s phone number plus a reference code for the marked-down rate it scored for you. LateRooms also lists special offers, including “secret room” deals with deeply discounted rates at four- and five-star properties. The rub, as with Priceline, is that you won’t know the exact hotel or its location until after you pay.
TripAdvisor is the most comprehensive hotel-review site, offering more than 35 million professional and amateur reviews of hotels in the U.S. and overseas. But watch out for possibly fake reviews from cronies trying to push up a hotel’s ratings (the site flags some such postings as suspicious). Unfortunately, TripAdvisor doesn’t sell rooms or offer any actual deals, but it links you with partner sites, such as Expedia, Travelocity and Hotels.com. Click on the "check rates" button and select the site or sites you'd like to try -- a new window with results will open for each partner.
To find a smaller inn or B&B, try searching Bedandbreakfast.com. It lists extensive details on even the tiniest inns and points to “hot deals” in your desired location. You can also search for specific amenities, such as a hot tub and fireplace, or find out whether a place is pet-friendly.
Vacation rentals are an especially good value for groups because they generally offer more space and amenities for prices similar to or less than hotel rates. HomeAway.com offers the biggest selection of rental lodgings, with more than 185,000 listings worldwide. Villas International focuses on rentals abroad, listing cottages and apartments starting as low as $25 per person, per night throughout Europe, the Caribbean and other regions.
If you’re traveling alone (or with a buddy or two), a hostel might be a better deal. Hostelz.com offers more than 39,000 listings in nearly 8,300 cities, and includes more than 2,400 professional reviews and thousands of real-traveler opinions.
For a free place to stay, trade places with other travelers using a house-swapping program. HomeExchange.com provides the largest network of home swappers, with more than 33,000 listings – 34% in the U.S. and the rest spread mostly throughout the major tourist areas of Australia, Britain, Canada, France and Italy. An annual membership costs $9.95 a month and gets you as many swaps as you can manage in a year.
Hotwire.com often offers the best deals on cars by collecting rates from its seven rental-car company partners, including Budget, Enterprise and Europcar. The site also offers “hot deals” from rental companies that won’t be identified until after you’ve paid. With cars, the risk in taking the blind-booking approach is minimal: A minivan is a minivan, no matter which company provides it.
Hotwire does offer some good prepaid rental deals in certain international cities, but such bargains are AutoEurope.com’s specialty. Auto Europe offers rentals at more than 4,000 locations worldwide. And if you have any problems with the rental-car provider you’re hooked up with, Auto Europe will help you resolve them.
Online travel agency Expedia.com often turns up the best bargains for bundled flights, hotel reservations and car rentals. You can also add entertainment and other extras when booking. But double-check the prices of those add-ons; sometimes it costs less to book them separately.
LuxuryLink.com offers discount packages for high-end travel, including hotel nights, spa days, gourmet meals and sports activities, but usually not airfare. The site offers some “buy now” deals, but it’s known best for its auctions, a la Priceline. Some bidders boast savings of up to 65% on packages, which are generally priced for two people. But flexible travel dates are required to win the best deals. Also, Luxury Link requires payment within 24 hours of an auction’s close and does not offer refunds.
At CruiseCompete.com, more than 300 travel agents vie to give you the lowest prices for dates, ports and ships you specify, whether you're booking well in advance or at the eleventh hour. You provide an e-mail address and they send you their best offers. The site even staffs live agents that guide you through the process.
National parks. For a value vacation, consider exploring a national park, or several. You'll discover tips on how to stretch your dollars on your next stay by visiting US-Parks.com
Adventure travel. If you're looking for more thrills in your vacation, start by exploring iExplore.com. The site offers hiking and biking trips, as well as multi-sport tours. It also boasts expert advice on "experiential travel," such as a wildlife safari or a culinary tour.
Green travel. Go back to BedandBreakfast.com to peruse specials for green getaways. And for a more in-depth search for eco-friendly accommodations, bookmark EnvironmentallyFriendlyHotels.com. The site lists more than 5,000 hotels worldwide and specifies their green amenities, such as recycling bins and energy-efficient light bulbs.
RESOURCES & TRAVEL ADVICE
Currency conversion. Check rates at XE.com for exchanging your dollars at banks in your destination city, which sometimes offer the best rates. Along with an easy-to-read grid of conversion rates on the homepage and a host of other tools, this site offers calculators for travel expenses, credit-card charges and, obviously, currency conversions.
Eurail. Trains are often the fastest and cheapest way to travel within and between European countries. Our favorite English-language Web site for checking timetables and booking tickets on European train lines is RailEurope.com.
Flight information. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) provides online updates on flight delays at AvoidDelays.com, where you can also sign up for free e-mail and phone alerts. This site will help you plan a smooth trip by advising you on the best time of day to fly from a specific airport and which terminals to avoid for connecting flights.
Frequent-flier miles. At WebFlyer.com, you can see how your miles convert between programs, learn about changes to your frequent-flier program and discover how to max out the value of your mileage awards when you redeem them for merchandise or services. Also try the Global Points Exchange program at Points.com to trade points and miles between rewards programs.
Packing. Pack lightly to dodge baggage fees. OneBag.com offers packing tips, including updates on banned carry-on items.
Seating. At some airlines, better seats come at a price. SeatGuru.com (part of TripAdvisor) flags the seats that cost an extra fee as well as those that have the most (or least) legroom and recline.
Travel insurance. Buying travel insurance from agencies and travel providers, such as cruise lines, is usually a crummy deal because of price markups and restrictions on filing policy claims. The policies that offer the best value are sold directly from the leading travel-insurance company at TravelGuard.com
Editor's note: Sean O'Neil wrote the original version of this article; however, Kiplinger's Best Travel Web Sites is updated every year.
More Advice on Travel & Entertainment